State Faces STEM Teaching 'Cliff' ; KU Faculty: Kansas Needs to Prep More Science, Math Teachers

By Llopis-Jepsen, Celia | The Topeka Capital-Journal, October 12, 2014 | Go to article overview

State Faces STEM Teaching 'Cliff' ; KU Faculty: Kansas Needs to Prep More Science, Math Teachers


Llopis-Jepsen, Celia, The Topeka Capital-Journal


When Dustin Dick was chosen early last March as the incoming principal of Topeka West High, one of his first actions was to look for math teachers.

"Within the next week we were interviewing and hiring," said Dick, a former Highland Park High associate principal who took over the helm at Topeka West in July.

The school had just learned two of its math teachers would be leaving at the end of the year, and Dick knew recruiting early is key in a state where competition for high-school math teachers can be stiff.

"Math and science are really gatekeeper classes to students being successful in the future," he said. "I want the very best person I can find."

Across the state, middle and high schools sometimes struggle to find qualified math and science instructors -- at times even starting the school year with those positions unfilled. As of Aug. 1 this year, Kansas' secondary schools were still seeking at least 36 math and science teachers.

That phenomenon isn't new, and some districts have coped by wooing educators from other states or abroad.

But faculty at the University of Kansas say the problem is likely to worsen -- significant numbers of the state's math and science teachers are approaching retirement, and Kansas isn't recruiting enough new teachers to replace them.

"There's a cliff out there," said Steve Case, director of the Center for STEM Learning at KU.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. In recent decades, public interest in these subjects has grown amid warnings from policymakers, businesses and scientists that too few American students are pursuing the advanced studies they need for careers in them.

Research on the economic importance of those fields has further fueled that interest. In 2011, a U.S. Department of Commerce report found that jobs in the STEM sector had grown three times as fast as non-STEM jobs over the previous decade, while offering higher pay and lower unemployment rates.

"The STEM workforce has an outsized impact on a nation's competitiveness, economic growth and overall standard of living," the report said.

Though the number of high-schoolers taking Advanced Placement (college-level) math and science classes has, according to the National Science Foundation, doubled in a decade to half a million, the U.S. Department of Education noted in a report this spring that high-school access to advanced math and science remains limited. Just 50 percent of the nation's high schools offer calculus, and 63 percent offer physics.

But while schools push to increase access, many face an uphill slope -- growing student enrollment and increasing retirements.

That is the case in Kansas, said Case and his colleague, Steve Obenhaus, a master teacher at KU with 21 years of math instruction under his belt. The pair analyzed six years of data on the state's middle- and high-school math and science teachers and found that nearly 20 percent will become eligible to retire in three more years.

"Right now we're not producing enough in the state of Kansas," Case said, "to come anywhere near dealing with that."

Inspiring

classrooms

On Thursday afternoon, 22-year-old Chelsea Switts, one of Topeka West's new teachers, stood in front of the 16 seniors seated in her classroom, jotting an equation on the whiteboard.

Switts wanted to give her students another look at the chain rule, a calculation that involves derivatives of functions, and one they need to master as part of this AP Calculus class.

"This is a really complicated concept that a lot of students struggle with," she said after the teenagers broke into three groups to work on a series of problems involving various steps of the same process. "Once we break it down, they realize it's not that bad. …

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